News Release: Research, Teaching

Jul. 20,  2009

TV Got This Physicist into Films

News Article ImageConnie Roth

From eScienceCommons

Many great scientists will tell you that a favorite teacher first influenced their career path. But for Connie Roth, it was the television show “MacGyver.” The title character was a secret agent who carried a Swiss Army knife instead of a gun and relied on ingenuity to escape predicaments.

“He would make a bomb using bubblegum and paper clips, and maybe mixing toilet bowl cleaner with some other household chemical,” says Roth, assistant professor of physics. “He just had a wealth of knowledge in his head that he could use to get out of whatever situation he was in. Of course, when I watch an episode now I think, ‘That’s so bogus.’ But it was an appealing premise to a teenager, that if you understand enough about how things work, you can put things together to solve problems. That’s kind of what a scientist does.”

Roth, who grew up in suburban Toronto, decided at the age of 16 that she wanted to become a physicist. “I had the idea that if I had a Ph.D. in physics, then I would know everything,” she says, laughing as she thinks back to her naiveté.

Starting with a volunteer co-op position in high school, she worked summers in a Xerox research facility. “That experience piqued my interest in polymers,” she says. “Polymers are used in just about everything. The chair you’re sitting on is fabricated out of plastic — a synthetic polymer. Paper is made out of a form of cellulose — a bio-polymer. A polymer is simply a long-chain molecule. DNA is a polymer.”

At Xerox, Roth helped study ink polymers. “We were looking at how the toner melts and adheres onto paper. It was a lot of fun,” she says.

Some of the scientists at Xerox she encountered came up with an easy method of producing polymer molecules with a narrower distribution. “It had a huge impact, because it improved the resolution of print,” Roth says. “I started to see how fundamental research could make a difference in society.”

Roth continued to focus on polymers through her undergraduate years and as a Ph.D. candidate. Her lab at Emory uses both physics and chemistry to explore the dynamics of polymer molecules, including within thin films. Polymer films have a range of industrial uses, such as anti-reflective coatings for eyeglasses, membranes for gas separation processes and electrolyte layers for lithium batteries.

“Polymers are coiled-up structures, like a bowl of cooked spaghetti. When you make the films thinner, the polymer molecules become distorted,” Roth says. By better understanding the properties of thin polymer films, scientists hope to manipulate them in beneficial ways.

In recent years, some researchers have shown the ability to produce thin polymer films that age at an accelerated rate, while others have produced films with a slower aging rate. Roth’s lab recently demonstrated the capability of generating both of these results. She hypothesizes that what determines whether the film ages quickly or resists aging is the way that it is handled during the thermal quench phase of its development.

“I want to understand the fundamental cause,” says Roth, who is continuing to research this area. “My job is to contribute knowledge that may contribute to high-end applications that will be out 10 years from now.”

Her work was recently recognized with a prestigious award: The American Physical Society’s DPOLY/UKPPG Polymer Lecture Exchange. She will travel to the University of Bristol in England in September to deliver her talk to a meeting of the Polymer Physics Group.

As a teacher, Roth strives to get undergraduates to consider a range of potential professions. “I want students to think long term,” she says. “If you do a little bit of planning, you might go a lot further in your career.”

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